16 September 2003

Quien Es Mas Valioso?

There seem to be two great debates raging currently in the world of Major League Baseball. The first is who should be voted the NL MVP, with Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols as the main contenders, Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, Eric Gagne and others following a distant third, fourth and so on. The second debate regards the AL Cy Young Award, with Esteban Loaiza and Roy Halladay the main contenders. We’ll take these one at a time, since trying to read a column about two different issues would be almost as hard as trying to write it. I'll get to the AL CYA argument in a day or two.


Barry Bonds has already won five (!) NL MVP Awards, while no one else in NL history has more than three (Stan Musial, Roy Campanella and Mike Schmidt shared this record until 2001, when Barry won his fourth). Some would argue that it’s time for Barry to step aside and let some younger blood in to share the glory. This is just about the dumbest argument I can imagine for naming Pujols the MVP instead of Bonds. But are there any cogent arguments for Pujols over Bonds? Let’s look at their overall numbers:

Pujols 626 547 127 199 48 42 122 69 .364 .441 .686 1.127
Bonds 512 361 104 123 20 42 84 142 .341 .534 .751 1.285

This happens to be something of a convenient time to analyze these two players, as they both hit their 42nd home run of the season on Monday night, but in most other respects, their numbers are quite different. The most glaring differences you should observe are those between their at-bats (AB) and plate appearances (PA), as well as Barry’s edge in the walks (BB) category. Pujols has over 100 more plate appearances than Bonds, and nearly 200 more at-bats, because Bonds has played 26 fewer games than Pujols has, and has walked over twice as many times.

Now the question arises: What do we do about such disparities? How do we compare players with different skills and with different amounts of playing time? Well, let’s try normalizing for playing time. We’ll project Barry’s numbers out over the same number of plate appearances that Pujols has and see what the differences look like then.

Pujols 626 547 127 199 48 42 122 69 .364 .441 .686 1.127
Bonds 626 441 127 150 24 51 103 174 .341 .534 .756 1.276
Diff 0 106 0 49 24 -9 19 -105 .023 -.090 -.065 -.158

With more playing time, the theory goes, Bonds would have nine more homers, 105 more walks, and just as many runs scored as Pujols, but would still have almost 20 fewer RBI, half as many doubles, and almost 50 fewer hits. Bonds’ edge in the “rate” stats (on-Base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS) remains, as does his 23-point deficit in batting average. A 158-point advantage in OPS, largely due to Bonds’ penchant for walking, is nothing to sneeze at. It’s roughly the difference between Alex Rodriguez and Mark Loretta, at least this year. So don’t let the relatively small percentage increase fool you: It’s huge.

Still, though, two problems remain:

1) Bonds still has a lot fewer RBI than Pujols, even with his additional projected plate appearances.

B) Bonds doesn’t have any additional projected plate appearances.

Bonds has only what he has, which is a lot less playing time than Albert Pujols. ESPN.com’s Jim Butler has made a good case for Bonds as the MVP, citing his runs created per 27 outs as significantly above Pujols’s number in that stat. RC/27, in case you don’t know, is a measure of how many runs a team of nine Barry Bondses or nine Albert Pujolses or nine Travis Nelsons would score, given average pitching and defense. Bonds blows Pujols away in this category, about 15 to 11. (For perspective, no one else in MLB has a mark higher than Todd Helton’s 10.05, which he owes largely to the Greatest Hitter’s Park Ever.)

Bonds, it seems, is the better player. I can’t really argue with that. But who’s more valuable?

I heard Bobby Valentine on the radio the other day discussing Bonds,

“…the walk is a very powerful play in baseball…Bonds is the best player I’ve ever seen…there are pitches that Barry could hit, I think sometimes Barry takes a walk in a close spot by taking a close pitch just to prove how good he is…”

Bobby V. did not seem to notice the irony in his statement: He acknowledges Bonds’ greatness and the utility of the Walk as a hitter, but then says essentially that Barry would somehow be better if he walked less often. Sounds a little like saying that Tiger Woods might be a better golfer if he didn’t hit the ball so darn far all the time, doesn’t it?

Ted Williams realized, a long time ago, that the batter’s eyes were the key to his success. Specifically, not giving the pitcher anything that the rulebook didn’t allow him. Swinging at a pitch just two inches off the plate increases the size of the strike zone roughly 20%, depending on how tall you are. This means that the pitcher has an area 20% larger at which to aim in order to get you out. (Note: If Eric Gregg happens to be umpiring, the area jumps to about 150%. If Alfonso Soriano is at-bat, this number increases to something like 200%. If both are true, I think Soriano’s out as long as they can find the ball at the end of his at-bat.) So Barry knows that giving the pitcher anything more than what he absolutely has to give will work against him, and against the team, much more often than not. So he doesn’t swing at those pitches. Which is why he’s so great.

With that said, I still think that Pujols will, and perhaps even should, win the NL MVP. The awards voters like RBIs, they like Runs, they like batting average, and Pujols has a big lead in all three. But more importantly, Pujols has played a lot more. Twenty six games is a lot to miss when your team is jockeying for position in a pennant race. Granted, the Giants have had their division locked up since July, but they could have gotten home-field advantage in the NL playoffs instead of the Braves, and they probably won’t. The step down from Bonds to Jeffrey Hammonds or Trever Linden or whomever plays left field when Barry's not around is a huge step down, especially when the Giants don't have another regular with an OPS over .800. He leaves a gaping hole in the lineup whenever he's not in it, and Neifi Perez can't swing at enough extra pitches to ocmpensate for it.

I understand that with his injuries and his father’s illness and death, Bonds had every right to miss those games. I don’t begrudge him that. But I (and the BBWAA) have every right to count those against him in deciding whether he or Albert Pujols has been the more valuable player over the course of the season.

I mentioned earlier that Bonds has a significant edge in RC/27 over Pujols, and he does. But Pujols, thanks to his 26 extra games, actually has more Runs Created overall, 151 to 140, which is not a huge advantage, but it’s something. If you like Baseball Prospectus’ numbers better, you get the same story: Bonds has an enormous edge in their rate stat, Equivalent Average, .424 to .366, but Pujols actually has a slight edge in their counting stat, Equivalent Runs, 142 to 140. Obviously this is a lot closer, but it’s still an edge.

The analogy goes like this: If you have a stack of $100 bills, say, 50 bills tall, it’s worth $5000. If you have another stack of $50 bills, only this stack is 101 bills thick, its worth, its value, is $5050. You can argue all you want that the $100 bills are worth more, and you’ll win that argument, because that’s not the contention I’m making. I’m arguing that the stack of fifties is more valuable, if only slightly.

And so is Albert Pujols. At least this season.

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